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Can Silence Heal Your Brain? Science Says Yes 

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.” 

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”. 

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think. 

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence. 

 A 2013 study on mice  published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning. 

The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons. 

“We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.” 

In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain. 

The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence 

A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information. 

Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.” 

When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues. 

When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world. 

The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way. 

As Herman Melville once wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.” 

Silence relieves stress and tension. 

It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. 

A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

“This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says. 

Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain. 

Silence replenishes our cognitive resources. 

The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving. 

Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills. 

But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise. 

Summation 

Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good. 

What do you think? Will you be practicing silence? Let us know in the comments!

Do You Know The Chemistry Behind Love? What You Read Might Surprise You (Video) 


For those of you who have experienced the roller coaster of love know all about the intense feelings and emotions that it brings with it. Did you know that love results from a complex combination of several chemicals released by the brain? In fact many of these chemicals create feelings in the body that mirror the effects of taking drugs such as cocaine. Furthermore, love can be just as addictive, if not more than some drugs. The American anthropologist with a Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology, is created the theory that posits that the human brain has evolved three core brain systems for mating and love: 

LUST - sex drive/libido 
ATTRACTION - early stages of intense love 
ATTACHMENT - deep feelings of union with a long term partner 

In the course of her research, Fisher and her colleagues studied the brain circuitry of romantic love by fMRI-scanning the brains of forty-nine men and women: 

seventeen who had just fallen madly in love 
fifteen who had just been dumped 
seventeen who reported that they were still in love after an average of twenty-one years of marriage. 

One of the central ideas to Fisher's theory is that romantic love is a drive that is stronger than the sex drive. As Fisher has said, "After all, if you casually ask someone to go to bed with you and they refuse, you don't slip into a depression, commit suicide or homicide -- but around the world people suffer terribly from romantic rejection." 

So what's happening in your brain as you fall in love? Here is a look at a six step process for what chemically happens in peoples brains as they fall in love.

Animation by: Victor Abarca/Fusion 

For any romantic love relationship, it generally starts out with lust - with physical attraction. Maybe you develop a crush on the barista at your local coffee shop, or perhaps you've got a thing for one of your neighbors ... point is, whenever you think about that person, you start to feel a little giddy. Why is that? It's because every time you think about that person, your brain releases dopamine - the "feel-good" hormone and neurotransmitter that is associated with euphoria. Dopamine is also associated with things such as gambling and drug addiction. Therefore, you tend to think of that person you have a crush on more and more - which releases more and more dopamine each time you think of your crush.

Animation by: Victor Abarca/Fusion 

The initial stages of falling for someone activates your stress response, which increases the levels of adrenalin and cortisol in your body. This has the charming effect that when you unexpectedly bump into your new love, you start to sweat, your heart races and your mouth goes dry. In addition to pumping out more adrenalin into your body, your adrenal glands also add a rush of epinephrine, and norepinephrine, into your body which only adds to an increased level of excitement about your crush. Norepinephrine is especially key. Like dopamine, it makes us feel good—but it also makes us feel infatuated and obsessed. It’s our brain’s way of saying: keep going.

Image by: Victor Abarca/Fusion 

At this point your brain has released quite a cocktail of hormones throughout your body and you're hooked. You might noticed that all you want to do is to be around this person every minute of every day. Studies, such as those done by Helen Fisher, show that that the same part of your brain that activates when you’re addicted to cocaine activates when you’re in love. It’s called the limbic reward system. Your brain has decided now that love is essential and wants more. From an evolutionary standpoint, this response developed to help us procreate and raise offspring together. Did you know the love drive is stronger than the sex drive? 

At this stage of the relationship your brain continues to release dopamine, to keep you craving the person that you love. Then, when the person you love is not around, you may feel like you’re in withdrawal, motivating you to see him or her again. As with any drug, however, the high has diminishing returns—which is why, after a few months, the rush can weaken and people can fall out of love. Unless, of course, they’ve become attached.

Animation by: Victor Abarca/Fusion 

Have you ever been in a situation where you're falling for someone but can't see all the red flags that your friends are warning you about? Many of you might be able to relate to this, I know I sure can. This happens because —while other parts of the limbic reward system are being activated—the amygdala shuts down, according to brain scans, taking your good judgment with it. 

The amygdala is a set of neurons that is located in the temporal lobe of the brain, and it plays a large role in how we respond to stimuli. The amygdala plays a key role in making judgment calls, recognizing fearful situations, and deciphering when someone is lying to us. When people fall in love, however, the amygdala shuts down—which clouds a people's judgment and causes the them to see their beloved through "rose-colored glasses".

Animation by: Victor Abarca/Fusion 

If you spend a long enough time with the object of your affection, you eventually bond. The more people spend time with the ones they are romantically in love with, their brains start to release oxytocin, nicknamed “the love hormone.” This neuropeptide is produced in the hypothalamus and released into people's brains during times of intimacy—when mothers breastfeed their babies, for example, or when people orgasm. Studies have shown that oxytocin is key to fostering trust and commitment. Unlike the quick high of dopamine, oxytocin is subtler and sticks around longer, leading to a deeper attachment.

Over time, with the right effort, love can develop into deep companionship. Brain scans of people people who have been committed to each other for years show increased activity in the ventral pallidum. In this region of the brain the two chemicals associated with monogamy and deep attachment—oxytocin and vasopressin—can be found in large quantities. Brain scans also show that the limbic reward system does remain active during deep attachment as well—which means couples in this stage can continue to experience the rush of early courtship along with deep attachment. 

For more on the chemistry behind love, check out this Ted Talk by Helen Fisher, where she explains in depth the chemistry not only behind falling in love, but also what happens when people break up as well.

Results of a 50-Year Study Show that Spanking has Significant Negative Effects on Children's Mental Health 

         Photo Credit: Getty
 

Recently, the University of Texas in Austin and the University of Michigan published a study citing that spanking is linked to aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, low self-esteem, and a whole host of other negative outcomes. The universities used data collected from over 150,000 people over a 50-year period, and concluded that there are no positive benefits to spanking children. Rather, there are 13 significant negative mental health issues that arise from spanking.
 

Elizabeth T. Gershoff, the lead author of the study, told CBS News that by the time children enter school, at least 85% of them have been spanked. She also states that spanking is ultimately a euphemism for beating or hitting one's children. Some people might counter that they turned out okay, or that they need to spank their children in order to clearly define who's in charge. To such comments, Gershoff says that people turned out okay "in spite of being spanked, not because of it," and that there are better, healthier ways to discipline children. 

Children do need discipline in their lives, and a better way to do this is to set clear boundaries, be consistent about the boundaries, be organized, and be a role model. Bottom line, corporal punishment only leads to negative effects on the long term mental health of children and sets a precedent for future violence. 

Article by: Rajmani Sinclair, May 31, 2016

Tired of Being Anxious? Try this Simple Strategy to Reduce Stress in Your Daily Life. 

Everywhere you look these days, people seem to be professing the benefits of mindfulness. Yogis have been talking about it for thousands of years, and now Western science is finally starting to catch up with what some sages have known for ages. But what is mindfulness anyway? And why should you care? 

To put it succinctly, Ronald Siegel, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, states that mindfulness is: "awareness of present experience with acceptance." 

Sounds simple enough, but it can be trickier than you think. 

How often are you really present and aware? 

In this age of social media, cell phones, computers, tablets and smart watches, how often do you pause, disconnect from the media-saturated digital world and connect with the world around you? How often do you wait in line or for the train or bus, for example, and really just wait? Can you do it without listening to music on your iPhone or checking the latest snapchats or emails? 

The iPhone was released when I was in college, and I remember vividly the day when I looked around campus as I was walking to class and thought - Does anyone just walk anymore? I looked around and saw that nearly everyone had headphones on or was talking on the phone. Not many people were simply walking and interacting with the environment around them. With time, I started to get uncomfortable walking across campus without talking on the phone or listening to something on my phone. I noticed that it took a lot of energy and discipline to go against the sudden social tendency to never be fully present and aware. 

After I graduated I got a job, and before I knew it I was attached at the hip to my iPhone and all my work emails and texts. I was never alone - someone could always reach me. I started to resent my phone. I yearned for a simpler time when people had to pick up the phone to reach people, or had to type things on a typewriter rather than answer hundreds of emails and update several spreadsheets a day. 

Did that idyllic time ever exist? 

Probably not.

Regardless of the current technology, humans will always find ways to not be present. We are so often lost in our own thoughts about the future or past, and rarely are we fully aware and present. So I can blame technology if I want, but ultimately, as I realized, the choice to be present is mine and mine alone. 

If any of what you've read so far resonates with you, you might be wondering, "okay, so why should I care? What can a mindfulness practice offer me?" 

While it won't make all your troubles away - it will help change how you respond to daily life and ultimately live in a way that reduces anxiety and worry. 

In simple terms, here are 5 basic principles of mindfulness that, when understood and put into practice, can take you a long way: 

  • Recognize that you are not your thoughts. 
  • Observe your thoughts, but do not judge them. Don't try and suppress them or get rid of them. Just notice your thoughts and allow them to float by without engaging with them. 
  • Practice becoming immersed in the environment around you. Take off your headphones. Turn off your smartphone. Look at the world around you. 
  • Take note of patterns of thoughts that occur often and label them so that when they come up again, you can say, "Oh, there's that thought pattern again..." Acknowledge it, and move on. 
  • Return to your breath - be in your body, and take in the world as it presently is around you.

What's even more important than all of these tips is actually making time for them! We often get wrapped up in the runaway train of our thoughts because we think we don't have enough time. Don't get on that train. Pause. Breathe. Take time for yourself, even if it's just a minute, and see what happens. 

Written by Rajmani Sinclair, 05/17/2016

The Benefits of Mindful Meditation for Children 

It's always exciting when scientific studies start to show what we already know about meditation. A number of studies held in the past five years are now starting to quantify how mindfulness and meditation practices are beneficial for elementary school-aged children. In a recent blog post on the New York Times Wellness Blog, one study showed that meditation over a period of 4 weeks improved children's executive functioning and even improved math grades. Furthermore, a different scientific review published in March concluded that meditation can positively change the structure of the brain to improve academic performance. 

Studies also showed that Meditation can also have the greatest effect on the cognition of the brain if it's done during childhood, due to the plasticity of the brain during that time. Thus, the earlier one meditates, the more effective the impact is on one's brain development.

Some scientists also shared personal examples of how mindfulness practices have supported and improved the lives of their children. For example, one scientist who practices Transcendental Meditation (TM) cited that she's noticed her 9-year-old daughter turning to mindfulness centering techniques of her own volition when she finds herself getting emotional. Thus, her daughter is able to better self-regulate her emotions. 

Another researcher shared a similar observation regarding meditation and her son who has A.D.H.D and bi-polar disorder. She has seen that when he takes a moment to focus on a mindfulness exercise, he is able to resolve his mood swings or anger with more ease.

Ultimately, by teaching children mindfulness meditation - parents and teachers are providing children with the tools to learn how to process emotions better and relate to the world with more focus and self-control. These are tools that will benefit anyone for a lifetime. 

Article written by Rajmani Sinclair, May 11, 2016

How Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain  


Did you know that meditating on a regular basis can actually change the structure of your brain? In case you were wondering why meditation can have so many benefits, including stress reduction, the results from a study conducted by Harvard affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has some answers for you. In 2011, the team of researchers published an article in the journal: Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging where they shared their results of the first study to every illustrate that meditation does in fact produce structural changes to the brain over time. 

Sara Lazar, a senior author of the study and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical school, shared: "This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing." 

The changes that Sara Lazar is referring to have to do with grey matter in the brain. It has been shown in other clinical studies that the amount of grey matter in different parts of the brain correlates to, for example, how intelligent a person is. In the study on meditation and the brain led by MGH, researchers discovered that meditating on a consistent basis for 8 weeks increased the grey matter in the hippocampus and decreased the grey matter in the amygdala in the brains of the participants. Increased grey matter in the hippocampus leads to improved learning and memory, as well as an increase in self-awareness, compassion and introspection. The amygdala, on the other hand, is correlated with stress and anxiety. So less grey matter in that area means a person will experience less stress and anxiety. 


Participants in the study participated in an 8-week Mindfullness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, where they participated in at least 27 minutes a day of mindfulness exercises. Magnetic Resonance (MR) images were taken of participants brains before and after the MBSR program. MR images were also taken of a control group who did not participate in the MBSR study, and no significant structural changes took place in their brains compared to those who participated in the 8-week MBSR program. 

As Britta Holzel so aptly sums up the study's findings: "It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” 

Written by: Rajmani Sinclair, April 26, 2016

According to Harvard MRI Study, Meditation Rapidly Rebuilds Gray Matter in the Brain 

 
In an 8-week program led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers, participants took part in a meditation and mindfulness program that resulted in a groundbreaking discovery. While hypotheses of meditation's effect on gray matter have existed for years, this was the first MRI documentation of actual, meditation-related neurological change in medical history.  

Study senior author and Harvard Medical School Instructor Sara Lazar gives a lay of the land: 

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day... This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

But what exactly happened in the study? Participants took about 27 minutes each day to meditate and practice mindfulness exercises. MRI scans at Massachusetts General Hospital showed major stimulation of gray matter density in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, an area heavily associated with compassion, self-reflection, self-awareness, and empathy.

Sue McGreevey, an employee at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells us that “participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

So, it appears that meditation quite literally weakens the part of our brains associated with stress and strengthens the parts related to introspection, emotion, and inter-human connection.

Read more about this study at harvard.edu. And, while you're at it, check out our last article on the benefits of meditation.

Author: Nate Morgan


 

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